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Relations between Aboriginal and white Australians before the 1920s had been marked by several massacres, the most infamous being the Myall Creek massacre of 1838. The 1920s unfortunately saw the violence between the groups continue and the miscarriages of justice grow more disturbing. The Coniston Massacre of 1926 was the last recorded massacre of Aboriginal people by white Australians. Although none of the perpetrators of the crime were brought to justice, the Australian public was outraged - the killing of innocent people was an act never to be repeated.

Although there are many different accounts of the events, it was a turning point in Aboriginal-white Australian relations. The massacre remains a tragic event in Aboriginal history and the senseless loss of life is still commemorated today. Indigenous Australians called the 1920s 'The Killing Times'.

Precursor to the Coniston Massacre - The Kimberley

Although there were many massacres punctuating the Aboriginal-white Australian relationship since Europeans began to settle in Australia, the 1920s saw a sudden spike in violence in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

In 1926, a group of Aboriginal people killed a man called Hay in the Kimberley in Western Australia. Four 'police constables', Hay's partner, a man named Overheu, and seven Indigenous Australians went to arrest the murderers and bring them to trial. The group arrested 30 Aboriginal people, tied them together by the neck, murdered them and burned their bodies in campfires. An Aboriginal employee who witnessed the murders was then killed by Overheu.

Although no one spoke of the atrocity after it was committed, rumours soon made their way to the Royal Commissioner G.T. Wood S.M., who was appointed as overseer of an enquiry made by the Western Australian government. Since none of the white Australians involved gave evidence against each other, no one could be implicated in the murders. Therefore, no one was punished.

This was the trend that had been established by the time of the Coniston Massacre - Aboriginal Australians would commit a crime, policemen would be sent into the bush to arrest them and bring them to trial. Instead, the policemen would murder not only the Aboriginal people  involved but anyone else who was around at the time.

John Ah Kit, Member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly described the situation in a speech on 9 October 2003:

It must be remembered that the late 1920s was a time of major drought and therefore, in the context of what was still very much the frontier of black/white relations in Australia, the conflict over resources was intense. It was a conflict between the land and its people; and the cattle, and those who had brought with them the guns and diseases that followed. What is often misunderstood is that the Coniston Massacre was no single event, but a series of punitive raids that occurred over a number of weeks as police parties killed indiscriminately.

Coniston Massacre

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During the 1920s, white Australians began settling on farms in the outback. These white Australians often intruded onto traditional Aboriginal land.

In August 1928, white Australian graziers had moved into country occupied by the Walpari tribe. One white Australian who moved into this area was Fred Brooks, a dingo hunter. He lived near Coniston Station, an area occupied by both white Australians and Aborigines.

Fred Brooks was killed by Walpari tribesmen. The reasons for his murder vary from accusations that Brooks had kidnapped some of the tribal women, to a tribesman being angry that his wife had slept with Brooks, to a disagreement over a deal for tobacco and sugar rations. Nevertheless, Brooks was killed by an Aboriginal man called Bullfrog at a place now called Brooks Soak, 21km south of Coniston Station.

Brooks' body was found stuffed into a rabbit hole. Reports of his murder were sent via telegraph to the police. Eventually the murder became described as 30-40 Aboriginal people ambushed Brooks, murdered him, chopped up his body into little pieces and attempted to hide the evidence by shoving the pieces into a rabbit hole.

In Alice Springs, J.C. Cawood sent Constable W.G. Murray to Coniston Station to arrest the murderers of Fred Brooks and any Indigenous Australians who had been spearing the cattle of the new European settlers. Murray had served in the First World War as a Victorian Mounted Rifleman at Gallipoli. Upon returning to Australia after the war had ended, Murray signed up as a policeman.

When Murray arrived in Coniston, he arrested two Aboriginal people who were later acquitted. He then continued his search around the area and on several separate occasions shot and killed members of the Walpari, Anmatjere, and Kaytej tribes. The people he killed included women and children and people who had nothing to do with the murder of Fred Brooks or the spearing of cattle. The official death toll stands at 31; however Aboriginal oral tradition records almost 90 dead. It is difficult to gauge an accurate amount as the killings were conducted in a series of raids - the first raid killed 17, the second 14, and so forth. It is agreed that the police killed up to 100 Indigenous Australians.

The impact of the killings on the Aboriginal groups  in the area was significant: the killings upset the land holding, religious groups, destabilised land tenure, ceremonial life, exchange networks and religious ceremonies.

The miscarriage of justice

An enquiry was held into the massacre due to the disgust felt by white Australians and missionaries. Prime Minister Bruce appointed three government officials - a police magistrate from Cairns, a police inspector from Oodnadatta in South Australia, and Cawood himself. They were to enquire into Cawood's orders and how efficiently Murray and his team fulfilled those orders. No one questioned or represented the feelings of the outraged missionaries, white Australians or of the local Aboriginal groups. The findings of the enquiry did nothing to bring Murray and his men to justice.

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An article published in the Tasmanian Mercury on 31 January, 1929, gave an overview of the case and the massacre. The article reflects the attitude of the board members who believed that the massacre was justified - the Aboriginal people were in the wrong. Today, this article can be read as a racist attack, however, it is important to recognise that this attitude was common to many Australians in the 1920s.

The article upholds the evidence given by Murray and his accomplices that they were acting in self-defence and had not massacred the Aboriginal people. The article believes their testimony and describes the killing of innocent Indigenous Australians as an act of self-defence:

'Giving its view that the three shootings were justified, the Board indicated that it accepted the evidence of Mounted Constable Murray, Tracker Paddy, Morton and several reputable settlers, that the shots which altogether resulted in the deaths of 21 blacks, had been necessary in self-defence. On occasions it had been shown that blacks had attacked the police parties with boomerangs, spears, nulla-nullas and tomahawks.'

Contrary to what is now considered a massacre the board found that the Aboriginal people were guilty for their attacks on white men and that these attacks, in turn, were the fault of white Australian missionaries:

'The Board found that no provocation had been given to the aborigines which could account for their attacks on white men. In its opinion the reason for the blacks' action was first, that the Walmulla tribe had advanced on a marauding expedition from the border of West Australia to the Coniston country, threatening to wipe out settlers and working boys. Unattached missionaries wandering from place to place with no previous knowledge of the blacks, and preaching a doctrine of equality and inexperienced settlers making free with the blacks and treating them as equals, had been responsible for the trouble. The presence of a woman missionary living among native blacks had lowered their respect for white people.

The legacy of the Coniston Massacre

Although no guilty party was punished, the publicity that the case was given and the national and international outrage that followed ensured that this would be the final massacre of Indigenous Australians. The bloody history of massacres carried out on Aboriginal Australians by white Australians had come to an end. The injustices perpetrated by the judicial system would not be tolerated again.

Today, the legacy of the Coniston Massacre lives on. It is an important event for Aboriginal-white Australian reconciliation. Each year, a memorial is held to tell the sad story to a new generation so that through knowledge of the massacre, future tragedies can be avoided.

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1. Who did Cawood send to arrest the Aboriginal people who had killed Frederick Brooks?


Constable W.G. Murray

Cawood went himself



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